"Sooth, 'tis a tonic to be in the open air once more," Merry exclaimed as Nightshade's booming wings hurled she and Karl among fleecy clouds.
"I heartily agree," Karl replied. "Between the scheming nobility and the fawning hangers-on at court I am pleased to be shut of all such nonsense. No doubt you were becoming restless as well, noble dragon."
"I was indeed," Nightshade replied. "Food is plentiful in the royal forests, but I crave adventure and to see new things."
"We are well suited, we three," Merry said, laughing. "Where shall we roam today?"
"I have heard a wandering minstrel sing of a ghost in the Scarlet Mountains," Karl replied. "They are thirty and five leagues from here. What say you, Nightshade?"
"It sounds interesting. Let us go find this ghost."
Before long, they were circling above a village nestled in a valley among the Scarlet Mountains which were snow capped, then streaked with rivulets of dark red down to their thickly forested foothills.
Nightshade swooped down and landed in the village square, folding his wings as his two heads looked about. Karl and Merry alighted and stood in puzzlement. The sun was climbing in the sky yet not a soul was about.
Horses whinnied in the stables, cows lowed in the barns, chickens clucked and dogs barked, yet the paths and lanes were empty. Where were the people?
"Hallo good people!" Karl shouted. "We mean no harm. We are but travelers in your land. Come forth so we may meet and exchange pleasantries. Quaff a stein of good ale together, mayhap."
"Yes, please honor us with your presence," Merry added.
Nightshade hunkered down in an effort to appear less imposing.
Doors slowly opened, curtains were pulled away from windows and frightened faces began to peer out as a stout man dressed in magistrate's garb emerged from the village hall and walked toward them, his staff of office trembling in his hand.
"Good morrow travelers," he said with a slight tremor in his voice. "I bid thee welcome to the humble village of Barnbower. From whither do you come?"
"I am Prince Karl of Vard, this is my dear wife Princess Merry of Lancshire and our noble companion in adventure Nightshade. We do not bode thee ill; we only seek knowledge of the legendary Ghost of Scarlet Mountain."
"Both royalty and a fearsome beast have seen fit to visit us this day," said a stocky woman who emerged from a cottage and stood with the magistrate. "We are both honored and humbled by your presence."
"My wife Hermione," said the Magistrate, "I am called Roland."
"It was not our intent to disrupt your lives," Merry said. "We are on an adventure and your village appeared below us, so we stopped by."
Seeing that the magistrate and his wife were not being cut to pieces or devoured, the villagers slowly emerged from their places of concealment and gathered around the newcomers. They were especially intrigued by the presence of Nightshade with his two heads, long barbed tail, massive wings, clawed feet, scales of black and white covering a sinuous body and the rumblings of his fire producing organs within.
Seeing a group of wide eyed children watching him, he lowered his heads to where they could reach them and waited. Finally a chubby little girl toddled up, patted the nose of his right head and chirped "Nice dragon."
Reassured by her action, the rest of the children inched forward and were soon patting, climbing on and hugging the friendly creature. Some of the braver ones would tug at his jaw fringes and run away squealing and laughing at the snort in response.
"The ghost is naught a legend," the village blacksmith said excitedly to Karl and Merry. "With these eyes not two score evenings ago I saw it seize my furnace in it's massive jaws, drain it of molten iron, eat the white hot coals and then fly away into the gathering dusk. I was in fear for my life, but it did not harm me."
"I also have seen the ghost devour ten and seven cords of split logs from my winter supply of firewood as easily as a child nibbles on a sweet," another villager said. "Smoke billowed from it's nostrils and from my hiding place I could see the fires blazing in it's gaping maw. I still dream of it."
"I was picking berries near the edge of the forest," said a young, flaxen haired woman, "When I saw the ghost eating black and shiny dirt from a hole in a cliff. Each time it swallowed flames shot from it's nostrils. I fled and did not stop running until I was safe in our cottage."
"This ghost sounds rather substantial to me," Merry said. "If it is a supernatural creature it must be more of this world than the spirit realm. What does it look like?"
A babble of contradictory descriptions arose, but all agreed it was big, powerful, could fly and somewhat resembled Nightshade only with one head.
"It must be a species of dragon native to this area," Karl said. "But why does it not eat meat and grasses but wood and coal? Are you aware of such creature Nightshade?"
"It is a dragon unknown to me. I am curious as to where it hatched and if there are others like it."
"With your permission, Magistrate," Karl said, "We wish to remain in your village overnight and begin our search when the cock crows."
"Oh, you must stay with us," Hermione said excitedly. "I realize our humble abode is vastly below your royal standards, but..."
"We accept with pleasure," Merry answered with a smile. "Karl and I eschew the pomp of royalty in favor of adventure and exploration."
"Your companion is welcome to shelter in our largest barn," the Magistrate continued, "The nights grow chill here."
"Let us show him where it is," several children cried. "Come with us Nightshade."
"It seems I have an escort," the dragon rumbled, "Until the morn my friends."
"Sleep well," Merry called after him, the sight of the scaly beast being led docilely by children causing her to giggle.
Merry awakened to the sound of an eerie whistling. She sprang from the bed and ran to the window. The night was moonless and a cool breeze caressed her cheeks. There was another whistling and she thought she saw a large bat flitting overhead in the gloom, then it was gone and with it, the sound.
Puzzled, she returned to bed, snuggled against Karl and fell back asleep.
"The Ghost was here! The Ghost was here!"
Karl and Merry jerked awake to the cries of villagers milling in the town square. Dressing hurriedly and buckling on their weapons, they joined Roland and Hermione as they emerged to calm the crowd.
"Good people," Roland shouted, "What evidence is there that the Ghost was here?"
"The contents of my coal bin are half gone," one villager cried.
"My pottery kiln was torn open and the charcoal fire devoured," exclaimed another.
"My wood rick is all but empty," bellowed a third.
The clamor rose again until a gruff voice roared, "Make way, I say, make way, Eldritch the Mighty is here."
Emerging from the throng was a man as broad as he was tall, skin the color of cured leather, an unruly shock of blond hair protruding from under a leather helmet adorned with ram's horns, snapping black eyes, a flat nose, large pointed ears and a thickly lipped mouth open to reveal slabs of yellow teeth.
He was dressed in leather armor, pantaloons, gloves and boots and festooned with a broadsword, daggers in his belt, a Morningstar and a huge crossbow; truly a sight to behold.
"My goodness," Roland exclaimed, "In all the excitement I had forgotten we had petitioned Eldritch to rid us of the Ghost. We bid thee welcome to our humble village, Eldritch."
Karl and Merry had been watching the pugnacious warrior with interest. He bore the scars of battle, so he was not a poseur and was no doubt a boon companion in a fight.
The merry laughter of children heralded the arrival of Nightshade, ambling along with them playing about his feet and riding on his back.
"Ware!" cried Eldritch. "A foul dragon has captured your children. I shall deal with this evil beast."
He made to unlimber his crossbow, but Karl put a restraining hand on his shoulder.
"Stay thy hand, warrior. That is Nightshade, our partner in adventure. He means the children no harm. In fact, they enjoy each other's company."
Eldritch looked up at Karl and then at Nightshade.
"You keep company with that monstrosity? I have ne're seen the like in all my years. Who might you be?"
"He is Prince Karl of Vard," Merry said, stepping forward. "I am Princess Merry of Lancshire, good day to you Eldritch."
"And good day to you both," He replied and bowed, "Your servant, sir and lady."
"You may dispense with the formalities, Eldritch," Karl rumbled. "We are seeking the whereabouts of this ghost as well."
"The ghost, the ghost," murmured the villagers. "Even now it is no doubt watching us and plotting more mischief."
Nightshade lowered his left head to converse while his right head entertained the children. "Where was this ghost seen last?"
"I think I saw it last night," Merry said. "I was awakened by an eerie whistling and saw what I thought was a large bat flying to the north; it must have been the ghost."
"Towards the Crags of Sorrows," Roland said. "Many have tried to ascend them but have either failed or have not returned."
"Then it is there we will begin our search," Karl said.
Merry turned to Eldritch, "You are welcome to accompany us today."
"I can carry you easily," added Nightshade.
"I must decline your invitation," the warrior replied. "Eldritch the Mighty fights alone, but I wish you success in your search."
"So be it," Karl answered as he and Merry settled into Nightshades control pits and with booming flaps of immense leathery wings, they rose into the sky and disappeared leaving awed adults and cheering children in a cloud of dust.
Eldritch wiped dust from his face checked his weapons and trudged toward the mountains in the direction the others had taken.
Nightshade circled over the Crags of Sorrow, noting bleached skeletons at their bases and in the jagged crevasses between; they had indeed waylaid many an adventurer and appeared insurmountable.
"Is that a cave?" Merry shouted, pointing to a dark spot beyond the crags on the mountain slope. Nightshade wheeled towards it when something emerged and flew into the air.
"Could that be the ghost?" Karl bellowed. "Let us see."
Nightshade flew towards the apparition which continued to float on the mid-morning thermals emanating from the mountain.
"Sooth," cried Nightshade, "It is another dragon, but a clan unknown to me."
As they neared, Nightshade called to the stranger in the sub-sonic tongue of dragons, "Hail Brother, I am Nightshade of the Early Spring Hatching, what is your clan?"
"Hail Brother," was the reply. "I am Sage of the Morning Sun Hatching. I despaired of seeing another of my own kind again. You allow yourself to be ridden by humans?"
"They are my friends and companions. We have fought battles together. I am kin to the Children of the Dragon."
"I have heard tales of the partnership between dragon and man. Are they in fact true?"
"Quite true, my companions and I have fought enemies wing to wing with them. Whither are you bound?"
Although Karl and Merry could not hear the exchange, they could feel the vibrations in Nightshades body and knew the dragons were conversing.
Although similar in structure, the new dragon differed from their friend in many respects. It's wings were shaped as a bats, the connecting membranes opaque; it's single head was on a shorter neck with a beak-like snout, four small eyes and horns. It's body was more snakelike, it's limbs longer and visibly muscular ending in clawed paws and it's tail was serrated and whip-like.
"I seek sustenance."
"I spied a group of fat swine not far below us."
"I cannot consume flesh, only things of the earth such as iron, wood and coal. My stomach is a furnace."
"How can this be?"
"Allow me to feed and I shall explain all. My cave is up there among the agate boulders. You and your companions can wait for me there."
Sage banked away and Nightshade soared towards his cave, repeating their conversation to Karl and Merry.
Sage's cave extended deep inside the granite of the mountain, faint rumblings could be heard far inside the dark interior. The ceiling was high and the interior spacious, enabling Nightshade to walk upright and only partially furl his wings. Karl and Merry dismounted and explored where there was light to see. The cave was not a natural formation; it had been carefully hollowed out of the living rock by some unknown means.
Sage glided into his aerie and landed. Karl and Merry went to greet him.
"Hail noble dragon," Karl said. "I am Karl and this is my wife Merry. It is a pleasure to meet you."
"They are a prince and princess," Nightshade added proudly.
"I ... I am not as skilled in human speech as Nightshade, but I shall try. I am Sage, welcome to my home. I must admit I am unfamiliar with humans who greet me so warmly, they usually scream and run when I appear though I mean them no harm. I am only hungry."
"Nightshade tells us you subsist on wood and coal and carry a furnace within yet it does not harm you," Merry said. "How is it you have such an unconventional diet and yet live?"
"It is a sad tale," said Sage, folding his wings and settling on his belly. Nightshade followed suit while Karl and Merry seated themselves on Nightshades forelimbs.
"I was once a part of a flourishing clan, then one day a stranger appeared among us saying he was a lost climber seeking shelter. We believed him, took him in and cared for him; he repaid us by ensorcelling our clan and making us his minions.